Violent Death of Patient Renews Concerns over Safety at Greystone

Lilo H. Stainton | January 6, 2020 | Health Care
As patient at state-run facility is charged with murder, official in public defender’s office says ‘Greystone administration had been warned’ such a tragedy was inevitable
Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital

A stabbing death involving patients at the state-run Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital has refocused attention on the Morris County facility, which is already involved in court-ordered mediation over patients’ allegations of dangerous and inhumane conditions.

Police charged Greystone patient Rashid Davis, 28, with murder after he was discovered on Dec. 31 in a hallway with blood on his hands and another patient was found stabbed to death in Davis’s room, according to multiple reports. Davis remained in police custody last week, they noted. State health officials, who oversee the hospital, would only confirm that a patient had died at Greystone and that law enforcement was investigating.

The stabbing — one of at least two “unexpected” deaths recorded at state psychiatric hospitals in 2019 — occurred as New Jersey officials are engaged in court-ordered mediation with attorneys representing Greystone patients who sued over alleged poor conditions and problems with clinical treatment at the hospital. The facility cared for roughly 350 patients with serious mental illness, some of whom can be violent, as of November, the most recent data available.

The state Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the mediation process or the latest incident; state agencies traditionally do not comment on ongoing litigation. But the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, which brought the patient suit more than a year ago, said the stabbing reflects problems that it flagged in the litigation.

“We are appalled at this tragic incident. It demonstrates many of the complaints presented in our original lawsuit, including woefully inadequate safety precautions, failure of one-to-one supervision, dangerously inadequate staffing, and insufficient medical supplies,” said Carl J. Herman, director of the Division of Mental Health Advocacy for the state public defender’s office.

“Greystone administration had been warned that under such conditions a fatality would inevitably take place, and it has,” he said. “We continue to pursue our litigation on behalf of the vulnerable patients at Greystone, in the hope that conditions improve and they receive treatment in a safe environment.”

The state Department of Health, which oversees Greystone and the state’s three other psychiatric hospitals, also declined to comment on the lawsuit or mediation. In the last two years, the DOH has embarked on an ambitious plan to improve conditions and treatment outcomes at Greystone and other psychiatric hospitals. When it reached the halfway point in this process last May, the agency reported progress in reducing overcrowding and violence, expanding staff capacity and eliminating physical hazards at the hospitals, among other reforms.

Decline in violent incidents

Data posted on the DOH website shows that death and other violent incidents appear to have declined significantly over the past decade, although patient advocates insist these reports do not reflect the full scope of the problems. For 2019, numbers are only available for the first half of the year, but they show one other patient died of unexpected medical reasons (at Ancora Psychiatric Hospital, in Camden County) and 39 violent incidents were recorded; information for the second half of the year was not available.

But in 2018, four deaths, all related to unexpected medical issues, were tallied in the state psychiatric hospitals — with two at Greystone — and 111 violent incidents. Eight unexpected medical deaths were logged in 2017, including three at Greystone. In 2016, there were 16 deaths — seven were tied to illness and were anticipated, the remaining nine were unexpected and caused by medical reasons, accidents, or other undetermined reasons; nine of these 2016 fatalities, including four accidents, occurred at Greystone.

Violent incidents overall show a similar trend, with 142 assaults in 2017 and nearly 200 in 2016 at all four hospitals. Going back to 2012, there were 20 deaths (with eight at Greystone), with seven anticipated for medical reasons and 13 unexpected; there were also more than 5,000 violent assaults recorded that year.

While many observers agree that the problems date back years, and grew under former Gov. Chris Christie, not all believe that the investments made by the Murphy administration have fully paid off. Patient advocates and staff remain concerned about violence and family members have voiced frustration over the care their loved ones receive.

These concerns culminated in the public defender’s lawsuit, filed in December 2018 and amended in June 2019, on behalf of 11 current and former Greystone patients; it included sworn statements from doctors and other staff alleging that patients were treated “like animals,” staff was not properly trained, the facility’s layout made it unsafe, and conditions were so bad that effective treatment was essentially impossible.

In their papers, the public defenders asked the court to force the state to take immediate action. In its own filings, the state said the claims failed to connect the government’s actions to patient harms and that they were not presented with a clear path to resolving other issues.

While U.S. District Court Judge Esther Salas appeared ready to set a trial schedule last summer, in July she instead opted for mediation and appointed former Judge Barbara Byrd Wecker, a certified court mediator, to help the two sides work out their differences. She also gave them three months — a schedule that would have concluded by November. It was not clear last week when the process started or why it has continued into 2020.